Art Talk: Are Rockwell's Boy Scouts and Grandmas American Masterpieces?

Friday, November 08, 2013

He painted freckled boy scouts, sprightly grandmothers and little black girls walking into an all-white school. Norman Rockwell was the star illustrator of The Saturday Evening Post for nearly half a century, and served as America's unofficial "artist in chief." 

Deborah Solomon, WNYC's art critic, has a new book about Rockwell called "American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell." Solomon said she considers Rockwell one of the 10 best American painters, right next to Jackson Pollock.

"You can say Pollock represents our desire for freedom and independence and the frontier, while Rockwell represents our desire for safety and security and the promise that we will have someplace to go on Thanksgiving," she said.

To listen to the interview with Solomon, click on the audio link.

And do you agree? Do you consider Rockwell a major American artist? Leave your comment below.

Norman Rockwell. Study for "Freedom of Speech"
Norman Rockwell's 'The Problem We All Live With' (1963)
Public domain
Norman Rockwell. Boy Scouts singing, 1917
Public domain
Norman Rockwell. Boy and baby carriage
Public Domain
Norman Rockwell. Boy's Life cover, August 1915
Norman Rockwell. St. Nicholas magazine illustration, 1914

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Comments [52]


Well, when at artist gets $46 million!!!!! for one painting....well, if that doesn't make him a major artist, that what? You don't need me to make a case for his execution, detail, major themes and representational subject matter OF ITS TIME..our NEED for Rockwell's vision and/or version....still don't understand why this is being questioned.

Dec. 19 2013 12:02 PM
Ellen O'Brien from Old Bridge

Rockwell epitomizes everything American. Sprightly grandmas (and, in my case, great grandmas) grew up with him and his depiction of what we wanted America to be. He belongs in the Met and his work will be loved when de Kooning, Pollack et al will be quaint footnotes in art history classes.
Hopper, Junius Allen, Hassam and a handful of American painters would not be insulted by adding Rockwell to their ranks.
I am a supporting member of the Met and I say to the directors," Get over yourself and do the right thing!"

Nov. 13 2013 05:00 PM
art525 from Park Slope

I have to disagree with Mz Gornik. If you are going to dismiss Rockwell by saying that- "All the art I've found most deeply moving expresses something that can be seen and experienced in more than one way" please tell me how you can use Pollack as someone who does express something "that can be seen and experienced in more than one way", I'm sorry but I don't buy it. I think Pollack is a cultural icon in that he sums up the sturm und drang of the beatnik 50s and what seems to me a very corny attemtpt to express this tortured soul stuff. The result is a painting that may have an initial impact- yes when I was in art school I bought the idea that rather than representing something he was being something- what was his comment? "I am nature?" I think that was it. It all seems quite melodramatic to me from this vantage point of so much time passed. And the fact is that once you have had that initial encounter and seen something that is so different than anything that proceeded it- not in brilliance but in sheer audaciousness- other than that initial impact I don't find much there other than a perfect decorative object for a 50s style home. I find it quaintly nostalgic like a Noguchi table. And as I said before I think that the influence of the abstract expressionists has pretty much evaporated. While we still look at the old master 500 years later I think the time is almost up for the abstract expressionists. I am not convinced that anyone likes Pollack beyond knowing that it makes you culturally sophisticated to do so.
Oh and one final note- I thiknk Pollack had a lucky break and hit on something in 1950. I saw a retrospective at MoMA years go and it struck me that that was the year he did all those paintings he is known for- Blue Poles, Autumn Rhythm. But then he lost his way when he tried to do soething else. He did those AWFUL paintings where he dripped faces. So corny. He was lost. He didn't have a second act.

Nov. 11 2013 08:48 AM

yes indeed!!

Nov. 09 2013 11:25 PM
Debra Gilley from Levittown

If any one of Rockwell's works should be hung, it should be "Southern Justice: Murder in Missisippi". This masterpiece depicts the Klan gunning down three civil rights workers during the 60's. No painting has ever struck me to the core as much or haunted me like this one. It perfectly shows courage and defiance in the face of certain death. He was brilliant, treat him as such.

Nov. 09 2013 02:25 PM
April Gornik from Sag Harbor, NY

Although I think Rockwell was a truly great illustrator, and deserves to be represented in the Met, an important distinction should be made between an artist like him and someone like Pollock. Great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation; think Girl With a Pearl Earring, or Blue Poles. All the art I've found most deeply moving expresses something that can be seen and experienced in more than one way, and this is a simple difference between "fine" art and illustration, which clarifies a point of view. In Rockwell's case, this is usually a heartfelt moment, gracefully and intelligently rendered. I don't have an interest in belittling him, far from it, but I do think that to omit this distinction is to begin to lump art together in a way that dilutes its power and distinctive facets.

Nov. 09 2013 10:14 AM
Marta from Chatham NJ

The Met displays many Louis Comfort Tiffany objects: windows, columns, lamps and hair ornaments. They should hang Rockwell too.

Nov. 09 2013 07:29 AM

Without question on of greatest.

Nov. 08 2013 11:26 PM
Todd from Irvington, NY

Yes, Met, hang the Rockwell, in the American Wing. Thanks.

Nov. 08 2013 07:55 PM
florence woolsey from Westchesrer, NY

Rockwell is a true artist and is among the best.

Nov. 08 2013 05:32 PM
Sally Patt from New york

It is criminal that the Metropolitan Museum doesn't exhibit Rockwell's study for his iconic painting "Freedom of Speech." According to Solomon, the Met had asked Rockwell for a painting and he generously gave them this important study for $100. If the Met doesn't wish to exhibit it, they should lend it to the Rockwell Museum where it would be exhibited and appreciated. Hopefully the Met won't deaccession the painting at auction.

Nov. 08 2013 02:45 PM
Tim Young from Sedona

I think Rockwell captured the America of his time even if an idealized one. The man could paint and express himself through his images This is what makes a great artist. I can't appreciate the Pollack bashing going on here. I have stood in front of work by both men and each time been exhilarated. America has been lucky enough to produce great art in many diverse areas. Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollack being two shining examples.

Nov. 08 2013 12:48 PM
Jeb from Brooklyn

Rockwell was a profoundly gifted visual artist. His work conjured American culture and myths that he melded together into alternately cloying and impossible to ignore imagery.

The America he depicted never existed precisely as he presented it, but I think he created a rich lexicon of ideals and folk heroism that people continue to embrace and critique to this day. I consider him extremely successful as an important artist for those reasons.

Agreeing wholeheartedly with an artist's point of view is not a prerequisite for appreciation.

Nov. 08 2013 12:22 PM
Julian from Brooklyn

Like Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper, Rockwell describes a vanished era of American life. His appeal now is principally on of nostalgia for an innocence and idealism that are now long gone.

Nov. 08 2013 11:14 AM
Mermaid D from Chelsea, NY

Norman Rockwell brought a little bit of art into the American living room. His extensive work now deserves to be seen by a wider as well as younger audience.

Nov. 08 2013 11:11 AM

illustration is REAL art. Rockwell is more of an artist than Jackson Pollock. Dribbling paint and splashing it on a canvas is what kids in kindergarten do when they have no talent.

Nov. 08 2013 11:07 AM
JaySee from N NJ

I can't compare with many of the comments already posted, but I can say that Rockwell has always been my favorite artist. Just enough 'characature' to make each painting unique, impeccable attention to detail and amazing ability to put that detail into the painting.

Nov. 08 2013 10:26 AM
art525 from Park Slope

Oh and Mz Solomon, thank you for bringing this up, stirring the pot and challenging the Met. I look forward to pouring over your book.

Nov. 08 2013 10:25 AM
S. Hicks from Brooklyn

The argument over whether Norman Rockwell was an Illustrator or an Artist is a tired one. He was a great artist (see his work "in person") who illustrated for us what America was, what America should be, and, also, what we wanted it to be, and what we dreamed it was. An extraordinary 20th Century genre painter par excellence! MET--hang that picture now; and same to any other museum in NYC with Rockwell works. See you in Newark in 2014!

Nov. 08 2013 10:12 AM
bw from NYC

I feel that so much modern art is just junk and trickery. Splashing some paint on a canvass does not impress me at all. I do not consider Rockwell just a lowly "illustrator." He is a fine artist in my mind. He did not just copy his subjects as if he were some sort of mechanical photographic robot. He had to carefully create a composition. He had to have the skill to portray his work so that today we know it when we see a Norman Rockwell. He has a distinctive style. His work is meaningful. One does not need to read a blurb or title to understand the deep feelings behind his work. I think it is absolutely ridiculous that the Met does not display his work. Perhaps they should sell it to a museum which would show it. We should not be deprived from seeing a great American work of art.

Nov. 08 2013 10:07 AM
Boings from Long Island, NY

In response to today's broadcast, yes, I would very much like to see Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom of Speech' hanging in full view at the MET.

An artist's skill can be defined by public response to his/her work, not just by haughty art critics' evaluation of technique. Rockwell's works are memorable and enduring, and reflect the values and events of the time in which they were painted. They produce an emotional response in the viewer. Isn't that what art is about?

I bet most Americans can easily recognize a Rockwell painting when the see one. Everyone can relate to Rockwell's subject matter; his paintings reflect classic values.

Pollack and Warhol are interesting--perhaps even "fun" in some ways. But they don't appeal to the masses in the same way as Rockwell. It is definitely time to recognize his talent.

Nov. 08 2013 10:01 AM
Boings from Long Island, NY

In response to today's broadcast, yes, I would very much like to see Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom of Speech' hanging in full view at the MET.

An artist's skill can be defined by public response to his/her work, not just by haughty art critics' evaluation of technique. Rockwell's works are memorable and enduring, and reflect the values and events of the time in which they were painted. They produce an emotional response in the viewer. Isn't that what art is about?

I bet most Americans can easily recognize a Rockwell painting when the see one. Everyone can relate to Rockwell's subject matter; his paintings reflect classic values.

Pollack and Warhol are interesting--perhaps even "fun" in some ways. But they don't appeal to the masses in the same way as Rockwell. It is definitely time to recognize his talent.

Nov. 08 2013 10:00 AM
Dave C from West Orange, NJ

HANG IT UP MET!! Nearly every american has a memory of a Norman Rockwell painting; that alone merits his standing as a great american artist.

Nov. 08 2013 09:58 AM
art525 from Park Slope

Thank you Mz. Solomon for your kind words. I do think it's unfortunate that too often art has become an intellectual enterprise with thought replacing viewing. Experiencing. I don't think that if you look deeply at a work of art, looking not thinking, that much of today's vaunted art rewards that experience. There are so many nuances in a Rockwell. The rich colors in the flesh tones of a face, the beautiful lines of a pose, a little flick of paint making a highlight on a nose. All that visual stuff beyond the emotional nuances. And it is too simple to dismiss the emotional elements. But that Rockwell painting where the father and the son are sitting on the running board of dad's old beat up truck, the kid dressed in his nice clean suit and dad in his denin work clothes as the dad looks sad at the impending departure of that son going off to school and the kid looking up waiting for the train to come and take him to new experiences- all that in one simple image. That's not easy to dismiss that human experience. Although the art world has certainly been able to do that. I'm sorry Richard Serra's new show at Gagosian doesn't give me anything like that.

Nov. 08 2013 09:53 AM

I grew up in a town next to Stockbridge and a lot of the models he used were people I knew and some were my friends in school. All of them said it was fun and easy to sit for Mr. Rockwell. Why stir the pot, he was an artist...enough said.

Nov. 08 2013 09:40 AM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Hey everyone,

Thanks for all the smart and (mostly) constructive comments. To Art525 from Park Slope: Wow, brilliant! I agree that way too much critical energy was expended in the 20th century on classification and categorization, on separating art from non-art.
I agree that Abstract Expressionism -- whose splashed skeins of paint once seemed like the ultimate emblem of authenticity -- eventually hardened into a cliche. Realist painting was assumed to be less emotional, and what somehow got lost in the discussion is that looking can be a form of passion if you look hard enough!

Nov. 08 2013 09:24 AM
Marsha Ashley from Brooklyn

Rockwell documented my childhood during the fifties and sixties ...not necessarily everyone's experience but that is true of all artists. He captured emotions of the time and should be displayed. In particular the civil rights andfreedoms pictures should be available to the public.

Nov. 08 2013 09:14 AM
Penelope Katsaras from Astoria

Norman Rockwell is considered a joke to the SERIOUS "ART" student or artist. Yet, we all know his work. In fact, everyone in America knows his painting from the grandmas to the kids! We can't say that about Rothko(for example). My mother, husband, and the man on the street doesn't know who Rothko is. But they know Rockwell.

Art is as much about history and culture as other elements (like technique, innovation, social commentary, etc. etc. etc.). Hence, it doesn't matter what you think about Rockwell. What counts is that he holds a position in American history and culture.

To me, Rockwell does not paint an America I know or experience. He paints a historical America I imagine or idealize.

Nov. 08 2013 09:09 AM
art525 from Park Slope

When I was in art school in the 1970s we were indoctrinated in modern art. We were constantly lectured that Rockwell was a cheap illustrator. They constantly drummed into us that Pollack and deKooning were the great artists. One teacher who had been a protege of deKooning told me one day that realist painting hadn't been relevent since the 1930s. I told him that Pollack was dead by the time I was born and that he was just a finger snapping beatnik, a cliche of the 50. You saw in the photos of him, serious, brooding and with a cigarette always dangling from his mouth. SO serious. So self important. Our teacher also lectured us that we had to paint what was inside of us, what we felt and be fatihful to that. I told him that that was funny because when I painted what was inside me he told me I couldn't do that. It struck me that while my teachers dismissed Russian Soviet Realist art and condemned the fact that the artists were told what to paint and that they couldn't diverge from that these guys were doing the same thing, dictating what was acceptable to paint. I was taught that deKooning and Pollack were gods and I bought it for a while. But I find that after years of going back to the museums constantly they just don't hold up for me. And you can see it in their declining relevance. Rockwell taps into something very real and very human. One responds instinctively to it. With modernism you have to be trained to appreciate it. I'm afraid that has led to an art world today where the wall labels play an intrinsic part in the work. It doesn't stand on it's own. (Viewers spend longer reading the wall label than looking at the work iteself.) And it comes from the head and not from the heart. It started with Greenberg and Rosenberg who taught people why those artists were good and meaningful and they became the gatekeepers for what was good and important thus insinuating themselves into the work as the mediators. In fact numerous second generation artists went to them to get direction on what they were to paint. Rockwell tapped into basic human emotions that resonated with the public unmediated by the art critical establishment. I think the critics hated that they couldn't dictate what people responded to. And in a technical sense Rockwell was an incredible draftsman, had a terrific color sense and a great sense of composition. And one thing that struck me the first time I saw his work in person was how well painted it was with beautiful rich brushwork. Better than it had to be for illustration purposes. That was something that he didn't need to do as the reproduction methods of the time would not capture that painterliness. He was a real painter.

Nov. 08 2013 09:05 AM
Gregorio from Staten Island, NY

Yes! I would absolutely hang any Rockwell in The MET!
In the American wing, sure. But, more importantly, in any public viewing space in the complex where others, especially the young guests, can see the depth and bredth of his vision of our American life!
To not consider Norman Rockwell in the same conversation as O'Keefe, Pollack, Moses and Warhol would diminish the complexity of the American experience, not just in art, but as an integral part of the patchwork which is who we are and that which Rockwell has presented so vividly time and again...

Nov. 08 2013 08:59 AM

idyll. angst. Where did you learn the Queens English, New Rochelle? I don't think thats how they pronounce it where you grew up. Your affected accent is overwrought and makes you sound stupid.

Nov. 08 2013 08:53 AM
Adrienne fromNJ

The Newark Museum in Newark, NJ will be showing American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell from February 28 to May 26, 2014 with 45 original oil paintings and hundreds of magazine covers, photographs and letters. It's your chance to see Rockwell's work!

Nov. 08 2013 08:51 AM
nancy welles from Brooklyn

Absolutely!!! Normal Rockwell should be hung in the American wing of the Met. His painting of the three Freedom Riders murdered in Mississippi in 1964 (not to mention his cover art of the little girl trying to desegregate a school in New Orleans) is iconic. Anyone who doubts his stature as an artist should visit his museum in the Berkshires. I also love is painting, Freedom of Religion.

Nov. 08 2013 08:51 AM
Linda Griggs from LES

If you see a Norman Rockwell painting in real life you'll see they're not done on illustration board. They're easel paintings. And he handles paint beautifully.

I think if the Met can hang the Pre-Raphaelites in the European wing then they can hang Norman Rockwell in the Amercan wing.

That said, two wrongs don't make a right. I think they're all illustrations in style and intent.

The Met has a modern design wing.
Why not a space for graphic design and illustration?

Nov. 08 2013 08:48 AM
Robert Flynt from Manhattan

LOTS of paintings are in the Met's storage - and every other museums. Rockwell is a fine, important illustrator, but he is mediocre painter at best. Formally he is completely banal. Solomon entirely ignores this.

Nov. 08 2013 08:45 AM
Klaus Shmidheiser from New York

This conversation is yet another reminder of how the 20th Century has tended to discard the commercial artist as non-artist. The most talented artists of the 20th century have been within the commercial industry. The push towards abstraction moved the focus from skillful artist to "making a name" for art investors.

Rockwell is one of the greatest American Master painters of the 20th century and the fact that his painting is hanging in the Met is extremely sad.

I love the Met and go there once a week, I'd love to see a Rockwell in a future visit.

Nov. 08 2013 08:44 AM
jwrite from NYC

Rockwell doesn't seem to fit in the MET. Maybe the NYHistorical Society.
Not a major American artist.

Nov. 08 2013 08:44 AM
Jane Griffin from New York, NY

Would love to see the Met's Rockwell. He certainly was a part of the American art world in the 20th century.

Nov. 08 2013 08:43 AM
Maggie from Upper East Side

Oh, yes. Please hang it.

Nov. 08 2013 08:43 AM
Brian G. Andersson

...and Norman Rockewell was born in NYC Feb. 3, 1894 at 206 West 103rd Street. This was 5 years before Humphrey Bogart was born at 245 West 103rd Street.

Nov. 08 2013 08:37 AM
Dave K from Manhattan

Very interesting. I don't believe I have ever seen a Norman Rockwell in the flesh. It would be nice to see 3 galleries present a block of works each.

Nov. 08 2013 07:58 AM
Seth from ny

Its the "Saturday Evening Post" I guess you were a little short on research time.
Yes Rockwell is an artist who should be considered one of the greats. His illustrations are about the good of humanity that raise the bright lights of emotion in the hearts of the viewers.

Nov. 08 2013 07:55 AM
Gayle from Long Island

There was a wonderful Rockwell exhibit two years ago at the Eastman House in Rochester that explored these issues. Personally, I think he deserves every accolade he has received.

Nov. 08 2013 07:37 AM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Good morning everyone,

Thanks for your supportive comments.

Rachel from NYC-- that is one charming story.

By the way, the Met acquired its first Norman Rockwell in 1952, after approaching the artist and requesting a piece of his for its permanent collection. He gave the museum a painting he had done a decade earlier, a study for "Freedom of Speech," one of his best works. The museum paid him $100 for it -- and shut it away in storage, where it remains. I find it wrong that the Met has chosen NOT to display it in its newly expanded American wing. The museum's defense: The American wing ends in 1920. How arbitrary is that? Why not extend the cutoff date to 1943?

Nov. 08 2013 07:28 AM
Alfredo Villanueva from Manhattan

Rockwell's work is derived from his predecessor at the SEP, J.C., Leyendecker, who drew 240 covers for the Post. I have collected and studied his work for over 25 years. Leyendecker was the CREATOR of the Arrow Man, the NY Baby, the Chesterfield man, and his WW I and II posters are now icons of American culture. Rockwell both admired and resented Leyendecker, as he makes quite clear in his own autobiography. As far as I am concerned, Leyendecker is the true greatest American commercial artist. Rockwell simply used Leyendecker's style.

By the way, both Leyendecker brothers were gay, which may account for the oblivion to which American commercial art history has relegated them.

Nov. 08 2013 07:18 AM
rachel from nyc

Hi Debra,
Quick anecdote: My father, a retired internist, had a few pieces of art hanging in his office waiting room. Two works I remember distinctly; the Rockwell of the little boy at the doctor's office and a painting of a clown on velvet that my sister painted (it was a paint by number piece). As I got older and tried to "modernize" his waiting room with Rothko, Matisse, etc., he dug his heels in and firmly stated that the two great American artists stay on the wall!

Of course Rockwell should hang at the MET and while we are at it, the Whitney and MoMA as well.

Nov. 08 2013 07:16 AM
Deborah Post from Peekskill, NY

I am surprised that your story did not mention that there is an entire museum dedicated to showing Norman Rockwell's works in Stockbridge, MA.

Nov. 08 2013 06:48 AM
Virginia Cantone

Yes, Norman Rockwell is a major American Artist and I would love to see his an exhibit with all or most of his work.

Wnyc, I love your station and all your programs!!!

Thank you,


Nov. 08 2013 06:48 AM

His work should absolutely be on display at the Met!

His works are distinctly American , iconic, and immediately recognizable .

Shame on that snobby museum director.

Nov. 08 2013 06:46 AM
Dennis from Rutherford, nj

1. Yes, unquestionably and unarguably!
2. Of course.

Nov. 08 2013 06:46 AM
Lydia from New Rochelle

Yes, I think that Norman Rockwell is a major American artist. We should be able to view his work should in museums.

Nov. 08 2013 06:46 AM

The questions were asked regarding whether or not the public wants to see the MET to display their one major Norman Rockwell and whether we consider him a major American artist?
My answers:
1. No
2. Not really

Nov. 08 2013 06:43 AM

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